Tottenham Hotspur's eventful 2013-14 campaign concludes in just under two months' time. With six games still to be played, the only guarantee is the man picking the team, will not be the same one who selected the line-up for August's season opener versus Crystal Palace.
Former Tottenham midfielder and Premier League-winning captain (with Blackburn Rovers) Tim Sherwood was shunted back into the limelight in December when he replaced Andre Villas-Boas. With a big-name appointment unlikely midway through the season, the club's technical coordinator was promoted with a smooth transition in mind.
Villas-Boas' final couple of months in charge had seen him scrutinised in a manner akin to his tumultuous tenure at Chelsea. Convoluted feelings accompanying his departure have, in some respects, been carried over to Sherwood's own reign.
The pressure to secure Champions League football through a top-four finish has cast a shadow over both men's efforts this year. Their different management methods have kept their team in touch with this target, but they are looking like falling short in a Premier League landscape undergoing notable change.
The following article will compare Villas-Boas and Sherwood's spells in charge with the intention of deciding if progress has been made since the change. Unless otherwise stated, the examination of the Portuguese's reign will be restricted to the current campaign for purposes of a more appropriate comparison to his successor.
The end and the beginning
|Villas-Boas' last six matches||Sherwood's first six matches|
|Europa League—W, 2-0 vs. Tromso (away)||Capital One Cup—L, 1-2 vs. West Ham United (home)|
|Premier League—D, 2-2 vs. Manchester United (home)||Premier League—W, 3-2 vs. Southampton (away)|
|Premier League—W, 2-1 vs. Fulham (away)||Premier League—D, 1-1 vs. West Bromwich Albion (home)|
|Premier League—W, 2-1 vs. Sunderland (away)||Premier League—W, 3-0 vs. Stoke City (home)|
|Europa League—W, 4-1 vs. Anzhi Makhachkala (home)||Premier League—W, 2-1 vs. Manchester United (home)|
|Premier League—L, 0-5 vs. Liverpool (home)||FA Cup—L, 0-1 vs. Arsenal (away)|
Sherwood took over a team undoubtedly shaken by the 5-0 loss to Liverpool that concluded Villas-Boas' time in charge, but not a broken one.
Tottenham were only five points off fourth, and prior to the defeat by the ascendant Reds, had gone five matches unbeaten. Two of those were relatively comfortable Europa League group games, but the seven points from three games in the Premier League had hinted at an uptake in form after no wins in November.
Chairman Daniel Levy told his club's official website the change in manager was about giving the players "a Head Coach who will bring out the best in them and allow them to flourish and enjoy a strong, exciting finish to the season." Longer-term, this meant beating the top-four rivals they had struggled with under Villas-Boas. Sherwood's immediate mandate, was keeping Spurs in a position for these encounters to matter.
The Capital One Cup exit in the form of a second home defeat to West Ham United in three months was disappointing. But with barely a couple of days for the new boss to work with his players, not especially surprising.
In the league, Sherwood turned the crammed Christmas and New Year's fixture list into a positive. The quick-five opportunities to get points on the board meant, by the time his side beat Manchester United on New Year's Day, Spurs were only two points off Liverpool in the last Champions League spot.
Winning at Old Trafford in any year is a scalp to be proud of. Yet given the Red Devils' own difficulties post-Sir Alex Ferguson, it could not be regarded as pivotal in Spurs fulfilling their objectives as it might have previously been.
Three days later, Spurs were knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal. A result that hinted at lingering issues when it came to facing the club's rivals in the upper-echelon of the Premier League.
|Opponent||Villas-Boas' results||Sherwood's results
|Liverpool||L, 0-5 (home)—December 29||L, 4-0 (away)—March 30|
|Chelsea||D, 1-1 (home)—September 28||L, 4-0 (away)—March 8|
|Manchester City||L, 0-6 (away)—November 24||L, 5-1 (home)—January 29|
|Arsenal||L, 0-1 (away)—September 1||
L, 0-2 (away, FA Cup)—January 4
L, 0-1 (home)—March 16
|Everton||D, 0-0 (away)—November 3||W, 1-0 (home)—February 9|
|Manchester United||D, 2-2 (home)—December 1||W, 2-1 (away)—January 1|
Villas-Boas was unlucky not to lead his team to victories over Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United. Nonetheless, the failure to do so left him without sufficient evidence to point to in alleviating the fears of the Tottenham hierarchy they were not losing ground on those also vying for the division's top spots.
Sherwood has overseen marginal improvement here. The wins over Man United and the Toffees were hard-working, deserved victories suggesting Spurs might at least claim to be England's fifth-best team.
Alas, save for last month's spirited North London derby showing, Spurs have looked almost as bad against the teams above them as under Villas-Boas' management. At Chelsea they were decidedly worse.
It has left them now fighting just to overhaul an Everton side who were no better than Spurs one-on-one but have found a more satisfactory consistency in their performances and results (chiefly, they have lost five fewer matches).
Individually, you can pinpoint specific decisions, mistakes and general player performances that have contributed to Spurs' downfall against the teams currently sitting first through fourth. All (even the much-criticised Gunners) are undeniably stronger than in 2012-13.
The general malaise—fear even—which has underpinned many of Spurs' displays versus them is harder to understand. Despite his best intentions, Sherwood has not figured out the problems either.
Style and formations
The bottom-line of results was Villas-Boas' main undoing, but he was not helped by his team's unimaginative, sometimes dour displays either.
Tottenham's lack of creativity in front of goal saw them find the back of the net nine times in their first 12 fixtures (they were better in cup ties, but mostly played weaker opposition). Six in the aforementioned bright start to December demonstrated a greater urgency from his players, but their inability to get anywhere near hurting Liverpool in his final game did not bode well for improvement.
Villas-Boas had predominantly deployed a lone striker at the head of what was usually a 4-2-3-1 formation, occasionally looking like a 4-5-1, and—with the personnel at hand—he had designs on evolving into a 4-3-3.
Last season, Spurs were not faultless in the final third but definitely benefited from the on-fire Gareth Bale lifting their play to often spectacular levels. This year, with Villas-Boas attempting to integrate new signings including Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Roberto Soldado, and existing players such as Jermain Defoe, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Andros Townsend veering between effective and one-note, Villas-Boas could not quite find the ideal winning combinations.
Upon his appointment, Sherwood responded by bringing Emmanuel Adebayor back into the fold and using him as part of a two-man front line. Villas-Boas had toyed with a strike pair at various points throughout 2012-13, but his experiments with Adebayor/Defoe and Adebayor/Bale coincided with problems of form and fitness for one or both of his duos.
This time, though, a hungry Adebayor immediately clicked with Defoe (versus West Ham) and Soldado (to winning effect against Southampton, and to a lesser extent thereafter). A Daniel Sturridge/Luis Suarez partnership was not in the making in either case, but the extra man helped Spurs occupy opposition defences in a way they had not previously.
Starting a season compared to coming in midway through obviously has its differences. But having played the same amount of league games under Sherwood now as under Villas-Boas up to his departure, Spurs have scored 25 goals compared in that period compared to just 15 prior to then. Interestingly, as the below graph of total chances created shows, the North Londoners have rarely come close to creating as many scoring opportunities in a single game as they did earlier in the season (with highs of 21 against Cardiff City and Sunderland).
Since those early weeks, Sherwood has had difficulty satisfying outside observers with his strategical decisions. The FA Cup loss to Arsenal—in which the Gunners' attackers got the better of Spurs between the lines—had some, including the The Telegraph's Chief Sports Writer, questioning the new boss' four-man midfield, two-man attack set-up:
Anyway, not sure Spurs will be able to play 4-4-2 in games like this. Arsenal midfield too good. Early lesson for Sherwood from Wenger?— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) January 4, 2014
The above wording was carefully selected, as Sherwood was keen to emphasise his formation was more complicated than immediately caught the eye:
Sherwood told his post-match press conference about the flexibility of his system, how he asked his players "to rotate and fill up every area of the field." He has aimed to stay true to that, even as he has since moved to a formation not dissimilar to what Villas-Boas fielded.
The key alteration in Sherwood's 4-5-1 (using that as a loose guideline for the general positions of the players used) was the deployment of the previously outcast Adebayor.
The more physically inclined striker proved better suited to leading the line solo than Soldado or Defoe. In the 3-1 win over Swansea City and the 4-0 over Newcastle United, his blend of skill and brawn provided the ideal focal point for his team-mates to link up with while giving the opposition trouble himself (the striker scored a brace in each game).
Spurs' standard of play this season has mostly improved under Sherwood. Yet, as already noted, they still came up short against better teams. Be it with two up front against Arsenal in the FA Cup and Benfica in the Europa League, or adding an extra man in midfield against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, Sherwood's ideas failed against some of England and Europe's top talent.
Publicly at least, in his first season at Tottenham, Villas-Boas appeared to have established more harmonious relationships with his players and the media than during his time at Chelsea. The latter was shown in a less hostile, often cheerful demeanour at press conferences.
As for the playing staff, he had not come in seeking to implement drastic change as he had with the Blues' aging squad. The Portuguese's decision to initially drop Michael Dawson did not work out, and he eventually changed his mind. Despite his disappointment at the decision, the club captain later told The Mirror's Matt Law he had respected Villas-Boas being honest with him and had been willing to (successfully) fight to change his mind.
The atmosphere generally appeared pleasant, with Bale notably rushing over to celebrate with Villas-Boas and others on the sideline after scoring the winner against West Ham. After the late-season win over Stoke, the manager joined his players on the pitch in celebrating their top-four hopes remaining alive.
Be it through Spurs' failure to finish fourth, the changes that took place last summer or something else entirely, this season did not prove as happy.
Villas-Boas' falling out with Adebayor soured the campaign's opening weeks. Perhaps the striker was alone in his belief, but his later explanation—here via BBC Sport—citing his criticism of his manager's tactics suggests at least one or two murmurings beyond him:
I told him: "Your ideas will not help the team". I have had a chance to play for a lot of top clubs in my career and I know how it's supposed to be. I told him one v one and he didn't want to listen, and then I told him in front of the group. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was a good one, maybe it was a bad one. I don't know, but I spoke my mind.
In response to the criticism of how Spurs dealt with Hugo Lloris' head injury at Everton, and then the 6-0 loss to Man City, Villas-Boas did not shy away from defending himself and his club. Following what he hoped was a turnaround point at home to Man United, he publicly called out Neil Ashton and Martin Samuel from the Daily Mail who had been especially critical, getting into a press conference exchange with the newspaper's football news correspondent Ashton.
If his players' performance against City, and a few weeks later Liverpool, were indictments of their faith in Villas-Boas, their words at least disagreed. Speaking to Sky Sports, Mousa Dembele and Sandro both backed him after the United draw. After the manager left, the Belgian told Simon Johnson of the London Evening Standard, "I think everyone feels guilty and that’s a normal thing. It’s a team sport, it’s not one guy who is responsible, everybody is."
Sherwood is a different beast to Villas-Boas in the way he carries himself, more forthright with a way for words. The earlier reference to his sensitivity over questions about his "4-4-2" suggest a shared sensitivity to their methods being questioned, though (then again, most managers are, and it is understandable when it relates to their livelihood). Villas-Boas' successor has certainly had to deal with a lot of similar questioning given the ongoing bottom-line problems of his team.
The 45-year-old publicly calling out his players after the Chelsea capitulation in an interview with Sky Sports' Geoff Shreeves drew plenty of attention:
Save for Sherwood coming off angrier, his verdict on his team's poor performance was not far removed from Villas-Boas stating to BBC Sport Spurs had "to be ashamed of ourselves" after being thrashed by Man City. An assessment that partly provoked Samuel's character assassination, has looked all the more accurate given Spurs' subsequent struggles.
Sherwood said as much in a recent interview with The Independent's Sam Wallace:
What people have to worry about is if I stop shouting at them. Because I have given up on them. I think you get more impact when you praise them from the contrast. I would never criticise anyone for playing badly. I don’t think that’s right. That reason for doing it at Chelsea was it had happened under Andre too. You cannot capitulate like that. Something is not right. The response has been good.
The inferiority complex (and it is complicated) among the players when they face the Premier League's best, which emerged in Villas-Boas' final weeks at Spurs, clearly remains.
Sherwood and his coaching staff—former team-mates Les Ferdinand and Steffen Freund, as well as former youth coach Chris Ramsey—have and will offer a different approach to the predominant Portuguese influence of Villas-Boas and his own coaches. For now, though, the relationships between them and the players and media are still going through much the same issues.
Progress has not overtly been made at Tottenham with Sherwood at the helm compared to Villas-Boas. Behind the scenes, things may be taking shape for a genuine resurgence next season. Left-back Danny Rose, for one, praised Sherwood's passion for the job and love for the club in an interview with the Daily Mail's Matt Barlow last month.
"You look at the best teams and they do well when they do have a manager to work with for a long time," Rose opined. "Everyone loves Tim and the coaching staff and we’ll just have to wait and see."
In the present, however, Spurs are not too far removed from what they were prior to Christmas.
As Rose indicated, they could do with some stability if they hope to match the progress being made at clubs around them.
Until Spurs settle on clear thinking about the club's direction—establishing it among the players, coaches and decision-makers in the board room—neither Villas-Boas nor Sherwood, or anyone for that matter, are going to be able to implement more than adjustments in their attempts to take this football club genuinely forward.
Save for a miracle-worker of a coach being appointed, it is the reality Spurs face without cohesive planning.